11/17/2009 12:00AM

Great debate should be non-starter


TUCSON, Ariz. - I speak for no one but myself, but I am wearying rapidly of the Horse of the Year controversy.

I understand the beauty of something in racing being controversial without being negative, which is the appeal of the controversy.

That, of course, is the argument of those who believe the Great Filly v. Mare Debate is wonderful for racing. It certainly is controversial, hotly so, without being negative, but it carries no great import for the future of horse racing. Come January, it will be over.

It is not like Experimental Handicaps, where futurity is built in with the controversy, with the ratings to be proved, or disproved, in a season ahead, and owners clawing for recognition. I know. This will be my 45th year of doing them for harness racing. I offer steaks in September to those who think their prides and joys have been overlooked, and I ask to receive them if they are wrong. After nearly half a century, I'm well fed.

So much for that. The public is fascinated right now, and the New York Times is keeping the fire alive with almost a full page of coverage on Sundays. Its poll last Sunday showed 69 percent of respondents, or 1,796 voters, declaring for Rachel, and 31 percent, or 823, voting for Zenyatta.

The Times poll is geographic. The filly raced in the East. The mare stayed home in California, and on her lone excursion east scratched because of track conditions while Rachel Alexandra braved them and beat the best of her division by more than 20 lengths in the Kentucky Oaks.

Four readers quoted in last Sunday's poll asked why only one of these superb females had to win? Professionals like Jay Privman and Ray Kerrison and Jennie Rees and Jeff Scott asked the same question, and answered it, citing racing's old response: Because that's the way it has been done.

Things are not likely to change, either, in balloting for Horse of the Year. It will have to resolve itself, with late licks and short memories playing a big role. The brilliance of summer fades in the colors of fall.

I am more fascinated by another aspect of the Breeders' Cup: the mental processes of Quality Road.

People, for centuries, have played anthropomorphic games, attributing human characteristics and thought processes to animals. There currently are high-level university studies underway on whether dogs actually think like humans, or merely condition themselves to respond to human wishes. It happened after the Breeders' Cup, when a Blood-Horse story said Quality Road "not only suffered several injuries from his traumatic incident at the starting gate prior to the Breeders Cup, he suffered mentally as well." Really?

In my callow youth as a racing secretary, I learned that horse trainers sometimes substitute their thoughts for those of their horses. When they complained about classification, saying for example that their mounts could stand no air, they spoke for themselves. It was hardly scientific, but I learned when last-minute changes were made, the horses often did just fine with new pilots without old notions of how they could race. Many who "couldn't stand air" went to the front and stayed there.

So I began wondering if Quality Road, whose Cup TV antics were not the first time he was belligerent at the gate, is simply a nutcase or was acting out some rational complaint or objection. He wouldn't load on a plane heading home, either. Is he mean? Or simply determined? Ask the Santa Anita starting gate crew, who quickly abandoned their familiar locked-arm butt-shoving seen so often in loading these artificial contraptions. When Quality Road began lashing out with those twin rear cannons, the crew wisely abandoned the battle and scattered.

Clay Puett may be considered having done racing a favor inventing his starting gate, but it still is a monstrosity, an unnatural way to start horses. Harness racing's mobile gate is vastly superior, easier on the horse's physical structure, and less forbidding to horses and the men and women who steer them.

The argument is heard that the mobile gate would get mired in the mud and goo of running tracks, because running tracks are deep and trotting tracks are not. Maybe, maybe not, but if so the runners might try the long-abandoned E. M. Smith starting gate, once used for harness racing at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park, mounted on an inside rail with the arm stretching across the track, never touching the running surface.

That monster disappeared because something better came along: the mobile gate, which made possible the huge early success of Roosevelt Raceway on Long Island.

Speaking of possibility, is it possible Quality Road is simply smarter than his colleagues, not wanting any part of Mr Puett's fearsome contraption? Have someone on the Santa Anita starting gate crew check that out, will you please?